It was just an ordinary day in the small Snohomish County town of Oso, nestled into a crook in the Stillaguamish River, until a hillside collapsed, releasing a slide of 15 million cubic feet across a river and a highway and burying an entire neighborhood in a mountain of mud.
Officially, 21 people perished in just a few horrific moments. But many more are still missing. Rescuers worked tirelessly against hope to find survivors. Friends, neighbors and relief agencies rushed in to provide support to grieving families.
Besides making a financial contribution to organizations providing support, there’s not much else Thurston County residents can do for the people of Oso.
But we can do something for our loved ones, friends and neighbors: We can learn the lessons of the Oso tragedy.
We can become alert to landslide risks, and where the potential for a similar natural disaster exists in our community. Landslides seem random, but Thurston County geologists have mapped the region’s steep slopes and identified the most high-risk areas. The information is accessible via a simple Internet search.
We can fight back our natural tendency to ignore risk. We can heed the advice of geological experts and try to understand the science behind land-use regulations.
There is emerging evidence that Snohomish County officials had access to warnings that the hillside above Oso had potential for “catastrophic failure.” And yet, people chose to live there.
Should the county have restricted development years earlier? Were sufficient safety measures taken? Were Oso residents properly informed? Those are questions state and local officials will ask after the fact. The South Sound can answer them now, before a slide occurs.
We can assume that a similar disaster is possible here. Above average precipitation this year has raised groundwater levels all over Thurston County. And major slides have already occurred in the South Sound.
In 2007, a slide on the slopes of Rock Candy Mountain destroyed the Ranch House BBQ restaurant near Summit Lake.
In the late 1990s, families had to abandon 37 homes at Carlyon Beach and another 12 at Sunset Beach due to a prehistoric landslide reactivated by three years of heavy rains. Over a prolonged period, the creeping slide made a 60-acre portion of Hunter Point uninhabitable.
Thurston County Manager Cliff Moore is concerned about new slides or the reactivation of older but unknown slides, especially in areas where development has occurred. His staff is working with the state departments of natural resources and ecology to review the latest geologic hazard data sets. He plans to brief the County Commission on Wednesday.
Moore is confident the county’s Critical Areas Ordinance and its detailed review of all development applications have reduced the danger of a devastating slide impacting Thurston residents.
Still, the Oso tragedy should cause officials in Thurston, and every other county and city in the state, to review landslide risk areas and development regulations wherever land use collides with a geologic hazard.